REVIEW: Dragon's Dogma Dark Arisen (360) - User Reviews - www.GameInformer.com
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REVIEW: Dragon's Dogma Dark Arisen (360)

Dragon's Dogma is one of those rare games with an original concept that is as good on paper as it is in practice. Moreover, it is one of those games that gets just about as much wrong as it does right yet still manages to be mostly outstanding.

 

The unique feature of DD are the pawns. At the outset of the adventure, players not only set their character's appearance from an incredibly robust character customization system but also create their own unique companion character called a pawn. Pawns are aptly named since they lack a will of their own, obey orders without question and are just about as intelligent as a puddle of spooge. They are handy though, and despite lacking in personality they actually handle themselves adequately on their own. Which is a good thing considering control of them is largely hands-off and entirely indirect at best for players own pawns only. Players cannot even order pawns to consume curative items. They will do this on their own, but only once their health is nearly gone. Pawns will act according to their class and generally act appropriately to a given situation and based on the parameters their creator has established for them. What's interesting is that as pawns become familiar with areas, quests, and monsters their knowledge of them will grow and their actions will develop to better suit the task at hand. For instance, one of my hired pawns watched me as I took potshots at a golem with a ballista at range. After a while she said, “I've learned a new way to fight this monster.” When I abandoned the ballista to close in on the golem the pawn took control of it and resumed firing. Needless to say I was amply impressed that the AI accounted for that.

 

However quirky they may be, pawns are also just about the most godawefully obnoxious thing ever to plague a video game. Yes, more annoying than Tails, Ashley Graham, and about a hundred Navi's. They chatter incessantly! Every time you encounter a trigger in the environment, no matter how many times you've heard it before, one or more of your pawns will deliver the same commentary about it you've heard a million times before. Sometimes what they say is actually helpful in figuring out how to exploit a monsters weaknesses, navigate an environment, or complete a quest objective. Again, all of this is dependent on the amount of experience pawns have had with any given situation before, but there is nothing to stop them from repeating the same line of dialog for the billionth time.

 

Other than your main pawn, your groups other two pawns are those created and developed by other players that are drawn from their games and bought with Rift Crystals that are obtained as loot drops, quest rewards, or when other players hire your pawn through the Rift. The Rift is a sort of online lobby where players can search for pawns until they find one to their liking. Other players pawns will also enter into your world and wander about where they can be hired on the spot. Hired pawns do not gain experience points, but they do gain quest, monster, and area knowledge when accompanying another player in their game. If you send a pawn away for a while and check back later, that player may have leveled up their pawn, changed its vocation, or equipped it with a new set of weapons and armor.

 

The RPG mechanics of Dragon's Dogma are spotty at best. As a silent protagonist your character is severely lacking in expression and the game provides no opportunities to make any significant decisions. Even for a hands off narrative the story and characters are woefully thin. There is nothing in the way of dramatic moments and cutscenes pass without any sort of grandeur. So the story stays largely absent, which is fine for some since it affords more time to quest and the pawns deliver well more than enough needless exposition on their own.

 

But questing and looting is about all there is. No doubt the monster encounters are fantastic and battles are dynamic and challenging. The environment, as aesthetically bland – bordering on hideous – as it may be, is a joy to explore every nook and cranny of. From city rooftops to narrow catacombs to the twisting labyrinths of massive castles both ancient and bustling with armed guards and court officials. Everywhere there are items that are handy in your adventure. There are a few core characters to interact with but most if not all of them are largely lacking in personality and are uninteresting for the most part. Voice acting is solid with a variety of European accents to fit the standard swords and sorcery setting, which as cliché and overwrought as it may be is again a joy to behold after all. The environment is largely seamless, although the game world mostly follows a linear path all along a coast line with a series of wide open areas and pathways that mostly funnel from one region bordered by water or impassable cliffs to another. Environments still allow for a wide variety of open exploration and large portions of the game world are open from the start. The seamless nature of the world really makes it feel like one big place. Since there are few loading screens you can spend all day and a night traveling from the central city to the far reaches of the frontier then look back along the coast and see the towering spires of the city and every massive fortress and craggy beach you passed along the way and think, “Hm.. those don't really look too far off from here.” All the while knowing that you're essentially standing in the same place as them, not just looking at a pretty backdrop, and that you've got a helluva long walk back!

 

As expansive as the world is, the system of fast travel in DD is a backasswards mess that wastes about as much of the players time as the system engineers who implemented it. Instead of calling up the map and moving the cursor over any previously visited area to move there instantaneously, the game requires you to acquire special rare markers that can be dropped at any point in the game. Players can then use special rare or expensive items to recall to that location and only to that location. Needless to say, the whole system is needlessly complex and limited. There is also no way to wait in this game. If you don't wish to travel by night or need to be somewhere at a certain time for a quest you either have to use an inn if there is one available or put down the controller and go make tea, feed the cat, mow the lawn, write a dissertation or ponder the meaning of life – whatever it takes to pass your real world time while you wait for the game to go on at its convenience.

 

Truth be told the fast travel system is specially designed to force players to stay sharp while out in the wilds. Players have to physically venture forth, and much of the careful approach to the challenges that can be faced in the wild would be mitigated if players could easily appear at their destination without any limitation and skip the journey in between. It is unfortunate then that there are woefully few random encounters to be had. Instead, adventurers are more likely to encounter the same item caches and the same enemy mobs that were encountered in the same place the first time. This allows players to recognize patterns to increase survivability but doesn't carry any risks after a while especially since enemy groups do not improve with the player's level and can be dispatched quicker each time.

 

Gameplay encourages critical thinking when out gallivanting in the wilds. Stay safe after dark, don't get lost, bring a lantern, stray from the path at your own risk. These are all things so many RPGs take for granted. Here, they are essential to consider. The loading screens do not lie. Failure to take these things into consideration can and will end your excursion prematurely. Careful thought and adequate planning is essential to survival. Players who venture out haphazardly will learn quickly that this is just not what you do. Not if you don't want your survival rate to be anything above zero percent. Fortunately there is little to no loss for dying. The worst that can happen is to irreversibly lose a hired pawn. If this happens they can be rehired if you can manage to find them again, but if they're expensive or their creator changed them in some way that isn't to your liking since you first acquired them then you are likely to consider looking for an adequate replacement. This can be an expensive and time consuming hassle.

 

Dragon's Dogma also handles the nature of player health uniquely. When players and pawns take damage or get knocked out their maximum HP is reduced. A group can be healed back to their current maximum and certain curative items, magical springs or resting at an inn will restore health back to the maximum for its level. But these opportunities are limited in the field. This effectively limits your time spent adventuring abroad since eventually your group would have sustained so many wounds and their health would have been rendered so shallow that they can hardly take a blow without falling. This necessitates the need to return to the nearest town or rest station sooner rather than later. The game's major city acts as a central hub, which means a fuckton of backtracking across the same areas, encountering the same enemies at the same level they were first encountered, and looting the same caches that respawn with a new random item after a day or so. The health system only increases the amount of backtracking to be done since it forces you to rubberband back to the hub city to restore, restock and replenish. I am not so sure I appreciate this system personally. I find it to be yet another needless limiting factor that has little bearing on the game other than being a mild inconvenience and doesn't really warrant taking into consideration except as a means to make taking all other serious matters into consideration. With constant outstanding health you can survive as a fool in the wilds without care for weeks and never have to worry about monster encounters whittling away at your ability to stay alive out there.

 

Controls are surprisingly rich. Every action is intuitive and context sensitive. Combat with sword, bow, or magic is fluid and precise. Your character is responsive. The menu screens themselves are intuitive as well, which is good because you'll be spending too much time in them. Such is the nature of RPGs though. And they're hideous which can be said of the environmental graphics as well. Dark, colorless with muddy textures and some low polys here and there. Aesthetically though the game casts a wonderful atmospheric mood that suits it nicely. Character graphics are also adequate. While far from pretty to look at they are also not hideous. The same repetitious dialog that applies to pawns also applies to NPCs and shopkeepers. After your millionth trip to the weapons vendors you would have already pulled out half your head of hair (assuming you have any) just from having heard them deliver the same bloody catchphrase each and every time you open the shop menu.

 

As far as character advancement is concerned, Dragon's Dogma employs a nifty job system that has player characters and their pawns alike developing along a selection of vocations. Each one levels up individually and unlocks a variety of weapons skills and general talents and augmentations that can be carried over to other vocations as they apply. Characters also have an overall character level and pawns are prohibited from taking so-called hybrid vocations that mix the style of two of the three basic warrior-mage-rouge paradigm but they can develop along the advance classes. As characters and pawns level up their stats increase accordingly but players will have no say in how stats increase other than their choice of vocation and what skills they choose to purchase with skillpoints and set for their character. Playing with vocations is fun and the system encourages switching between vocations to experiment without much fear of being penalized for it. Skills and augments acquired in one vocation are also handy in others making it essential for players to develop along multiple vocations. This also switches up the playstyle and keeps things interesting and varied. You could be swinging a sword one day and slinging spells the next. Leading a diverse demographic of vocations in a group is essential so choosing which vocations and skills for your character and your pawn to bring as well as the vocation and skills of hired pawns is crucial.

 

But since players have no control over the development of hired pawns players are completely at each others mercy when it comes to acquiring just the right pawn you're wanting to employ. Fortunately the sheer number of them minimizes the chances of there not really ever being a pawn available that isn't half what you really want but it can take some time sorting through pawns in the rift to find one that is close enough. Since hired pawns do not level with you, eventually the current challenges begin to exceed their capabilities, forcing players to go back to the rift and hire a new one about every ten levels or so. I found myself getting attached to my hired pawns and began developing a report with their creators who of course I have never even met. It is pretty amazing how surprising, helpful and endearing the pawns can be. Also irritating as all hell.

 

 

Overall Dragon's Dogma is a successful attempt at innovation that despite its shortcomings pulls through to become a most adequate and entertaining adventure. There are some major gripes to consider that can hardly be overlooked but they don't drag down the experience hard enough to make its accomplishments pale by comparison. Dragon's Dogma is also one of the smoothest RPGs I have ever played where gameplay mechanics, systems and controls – as complex and nondescript as they can be – are not too difficult to figure out on ones own. Not to mention the satisfaction of having done so without somebody having the need to explain it to you as though a small child were incapable of understanding it. Dragon's Dogma values player's efforts without leaving players lost without a clue and will reward them appropriately, which is enough to be grateful for in its own right. The adventure also presents a legitimate challenge that is the sort of challenge that requires real thought and consideration rather than simply overwhelming players with a fuckton of ridiculously roided-out enemies and making them rely solely on luck or superior twitch skills to get by. In the end, Dragon's Dogma is well worth the investment and it is an experience that is well earned even long after the credits turn for the first time.

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